The metric system, on the face of it, seems sensible. When you want to go to the next bigger unit of measurement, just increase things by a factor of 10. It is apparently so sensible, students always ask the question, why does America not convert to metric? The teachers and professors shake their heads at the stupidity of the American common man, and move on the next lesson.
It is the metric system that’s stupid. Imperial measurement units are for people that need to get things done. It’s all because of the basic number that the systems are built around. Pick up a ruler, and that’s all you need to use to demonstrate how superior the American system is. Quick, in both systems, tell me what the major unity of measurement is. American — 1 foot, or 12 inches. Metric — 1 meter, or 100 centimeters. As you can see, that’s already a problem. What student is going to lug around a 1 meter ruler? So we have to make the metric basic unit of measurement a decimeter.
But let’s look into this a little more closely. Something that people do all the time with measurements is to subdivide them. So, divide the basic unit of measurement by, 2,3,4, and see what you get.
10/2 = 5
10/3 = 3.333333
10/4 = 2.5
12/2 = 6
12/3 = 4
12/4 = 3
Hmmm…that’s interesting. American units provide us even numbers when divided. Every American tradesman knows this, of course. Ask an American carpenter to switch to metric and he’ll laugh in your face.
How about big units of measurement? Do you remember how many meters in a kilometer? That’s easy, 1000! How many feet in a mile? 5280, which is a little tougher. Where the heck did 5280 feet in a mile come from, that’s a tough number to remember. Well, let’s get into some factoring action, which tells us what numbers the big number can be easily divided by:
Factors of 1000:
1 2 4 5 8 10 20 25 40 50 100 125 200 250 500
Factors of 5280:
1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 15 16 20 22 24 30 32 33 40 44 48 55 60 66 80 88 96 110 120 132 160 165 176 220 240 264 330 352 440 480 528 660 880 1056 1320 1760 2640
Looks like you can evenly subdivide a mile in a whole bunch of different ways. Need to know how many feet in 1/11 of a mile? Bam — it’s 480. Beat that, metric system.
OK, enough with the land, how about when you are cruising out on the open ocean. When I was on a submarine, we had to navigate all over the world. For that we use latitude and longitude. The people who thought up latitude and longitude were smart. There are 360 degrees of longitude — that’s a beautiful number!
360 is 6 times 60. And 60 is five times better than 12. Twelve is the basic unit of measurements for the Imperial system. But if you use 60, you can evenly divide it by 2,3,4 and 5! So, using 360 degrees for longitude was just as smart as using 24 hours in a day — actually 15 times smarter, but who’s counting?
Back to open ocean navigating. When using smaller measurements than the full degree of latitude, it gets subdivided into 60 minutes. One minute of latitude is also known as a nautical mile. That makes it easier to navigate using nautical charts, which show latitude and longitude. Speed on water is measured in knots, which nautical miles per hour.
At the equator, the length of one degree of latitude and longitude are the same, 69 miles. On American submarines, we need to have something more easily divisible than a nautical mile when judging tactical distances, so we use yards. I would expect Russian and Chinese submarines use meters. Even there, we have an advantage, because:
1 nautical mile = 1852 meters
1 nautical mile = 2024 yards
It’s a heck of a lot easier to approximate a nautical mile as 2000 yards, with a 1% error, than 2000 meters, with a 13% error.
The Metric system does have an advantage in the area of power. A Watt is a heck of a lot more usable than horsepower. So, which does America use? Both, of course! Our car and boat engines are measured in horsepower, and our electricity is measured in Watts. Who says Americans can’t be sensible?
So there you go. Just like time is measured in 24 hours, subdivided into 60 minutes and seconds, and there are 360 degrees on a circle, the American system of measurement is based on 12, which is a beautiful number. The metric system is based around the number 10, which is the number of toes on your feet, and is not a beautiful number. In fact, the whole world would be better off if we switched to a base 12 numbering system, instead of base 10. But that is a discussion for a different day.
Author: Rolf Versluis
Published at Priority Queue